Brand Equity, Images, and Culture: Lessons From Art History


Larry Percy (1993) ,"Brand Equity, Images, and Culture: Lessons From Art History", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 569-573.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 569-573


Larry Percy, Consultant, Rochester Hills, Michigan, U.S.A.

One of the problems confronting global marketers is whether or not it is possible to find a common image for their brands that will positively contribute to brand equity around the world. At first blush one may not think this would be all that difficult; but, as we shall see, it is a terribly complex issue. This should become very clear as we travel around the globe and back through the centuries, focusing upon manifestations of culture and ichnography. We shall discuss examples of how culture provides the frame of reference for understanding most images, but we shall show that certain images have the potential to tap responses at a much deeper level (perhaps even in our limbic or "old" brain), independent of cultural influence. When we're through, we shall see that while it is certainly possible to find images to represent a brand globally, one must proceed with a great deal of care.


Psychologists have known for years of the power inherent in images to arouse. In fact, it probably would not be stretching things too much to say that arousal is the dominant consequence of exposure to a picture or illustration. While this notion has been expressed by Kroeber-Riel (1988) and others working with the power of images in advertising, it has also been recognized by art historians such as David Freedberg and E. H. Gombrich.

Gombrich (1982), for example, feels that visual images are supreme in their capacity for arousal. He goes on to point out that the power of visual impressions to arouse our emotions has been observed from ancient times. Horace, when comparing the impact of the stage with that of verbal narrative in his Art of Poetry, writes that "the mind is more slowly stirred by the ear than by the eye".

In Freedberg's fascinating (but difficult) book The Power of Images, he makes a very important, albeit subtle, point. He reminds us that the arousal one feels at the sight of a picture is not simply a matter of arousal occasioned by the sight of the various elements within the picture (e.g., the particular alignment of features in a figure), but "precisely a matter of arousal by sight of the picture". We will want to remember this point particularly when we discuss the ability of certain images or representations to transcend cultural idiosyncracies.

A recent commercial for the Red Cross in the Netherlands illustrates quite well how images can arouse. With a background of Louis Armstrong singing "It's a Wonderful World", a series of vivid images are shown depicting civil unrest, fighting in the streets, and starving children. These images do arouse, and probably communicate a common message across cultures. But, images, in and of themselves, may not consistently communicate a single, desired message.

What we usually think of as communication is concerned with matter, rather than with mood, as Gombrich points out. For example, he discusses an ancient mosaic that was found at the entrance of a house in Pompeii. The mosaic depicts a dog on a chain with an inscription written in Latin. Looking at this image, it is not hard to see the linkage between the image and arousal. But without the inscription Cave Canem (Beware of the Dog), would one actually react as if it was a real dog barking at us? The caption clearly reinforces the image, but would the image alone be able to communicate the message? The answer is probably "yes" if we come to it with a knowledge of the customs and conventions of the culture.

Suppose, however, it was someone outside of our culture that happened upon this image. If that were the case, Gombrich offers several other possible interpretations. Perhaps this was an advertisement for a dog the owner wished to sell; or perhaps it marked the entrance to a veterinarian; or even the sign for a public house called "the Black Dog". As he suggests in this exercise, we take a lot for granted when we look at an image for its message. It always depends upon our prior knowledge of possibilities. He concludes by reminding us that however automatic our first response to an image may be, its actual reading can never be a passive affair.

The implications of all of this for globally marketed brands should be clear. Depending upon one's background and experience, our interpretation of an image may not coincide, either interpretatively or cognitively, with that of the cultures described (Freedberg, 1989).


Let us now dig a little deeper into this issue, and examine the impact of history and context upon the interpretation of images. Art has always incorporated images, some more readily understood than others. The imagery in much modern art is lost even upon other artists of the same school. They are the artist's images, and we must be instructed before we understand. Once understood, the art work quite literally takes on new meaning. Medieval and Renaissance art was full of images, most inaccessible to even the best educated of us today. Interestingly, however, these images would have been readily understood by almost anyone alive up through the eighteenth century.

Almost everyone is familiar with the Unicorn; but are they familiar with its meaning? The two most famous renderings of the Unicorn legend are to be found in two sets of tapestry: one in the Cloisters of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the other in the Musee' de Cluny in Paris. Let us examine closely some of the "images" in the Met's "Unicorn in Captivity". Filled with botanical symbolism, this tapestry signifies earthly love and fruitful marriage. Here the unicorn may be interpreted as the image of a lover-bridegroom, at last secured by his bride. The chaine d'amour or love chain that attaches the unicorn to the tree is frequently mentioned in medieval poetry to illustrate a gentleman's devotion to his lady and his complete subjection to her will. The fruits of the tree are clearly pomegranates, a symbol of fertility; and it is significant that some of the seeds with their red juice have spilled onto the milk-white body of the unicorn. Bluebell blossoms and a tall wild orchid stand out against the unicorns body. At the time, it was believed that when a bluebell is suspended above the threshold, "all evil things will flee there from". The orchid had special powers. If a man was to eat the largest part of the root, he would beget a male child; the smaller part, a daughter. We also see red and white carnations. During the fifteenth century the carnation became popular as a symbol of betrothal and marriage. Medieval herbalists used wallflowers, seen in the background, to ease the pain of childbirth, and in distilled form to "make a women fruitful". And, there is more.

The Unicorn clearly had special meaning for Medieval Europe; and no doubt the sexual implication of the Unicorn would be understood by anyone, even today. However, the cultural encrustation would have been lost on those outside of Europe, as they are to us today. Imagining a Medieval advertising campaign for Unicorn brand baby products, the richness of meaning for this image would have worked hard for the brand in Europe, but could have meant something entirely different to people in other lands.

Symbolic meaning was often "triggered" by the inclusions of well known images. The statues of Night and of Day by Michelangelo for the tombs in the Medici chapel in Florence illustrate this. On the surface, there is little in the figures to lead one to understand the artist's meaning. But, when we look at the symbolic meaning associated with the images surrounding the figure, its meaning becomes clear. With Michelangelo's Night, for example, we are lead to the right conclusion by the presence of an owl, star, and sleeping poppies. As Gombrich remarks, this is not only a pictograph of a concept but also a poetic evocation of natural feeling. Once again, however, we must ask ourselves if people outside of Europe at the time, say in Northern Africa or the Far East, would have made sense of the images used for this tomb.

Iconography (which is the imagery selected to convey a certain feeling or meaning) played a large part in the design and placement of sculpture and monuments in gardens from the sixteenth century through the mid eighteenth century in Europe, and especially in England. These allegorical subjects were popular and often-used themes in the life of an educated person of the time. One of the earliest and best known gardens of this type in England (along with Rousham and Stowe) is Stourhead. The circuitous walk about the garden even today offers beautiful vistas and surprises at every turn. Each feature on the garden walk is gradually revealed, lost, and then found again, until finally at the end of the walk, after climbing to the top of a hill to the temple of Apollo, the whole panorama opens before you. Of this scene, Horace Walpole in the eighteenth century is said to have remarked, we have "one of the most picturesque scenes in the world". And why not? Every effort was made to embody the spirit of the great classical landscapes of Claude, Poussin, and Salvator Rosa, which at the time were seen to lie at the heart of the "picturesque" in landscape gardens. It may surprise us today to know that at the time vigorous debate raged in the popular press and among the dilitante over the "correct" interpretation of the picturesque. Alexander Pope (the poet), for example, wrote extensively about it.

Stourhead was dedicated to the pagan deities of rivers and springs, and was designed to recreate the emotions of Aeneas on his adventures. The allegory begins at the Temple of Flora, passes around to the Grottoes of the underworld, emerges to reveal the Pantheon of earthly glories and finally, over a bridge and through a rock arch suggestive of mortality, to ascend heavenwards to the Temple of Apollo. Over the entrance to the Temple of Flora one finds the forbidding Virgilian inscription given Aeneas as he prepared to enter the underworld: "Be gone you who are uninitiated, be gone". This at once establishes the classical associations that await garden explorers. The Temple of Flora honors the sources of the river in the pagan manner with a temple such as the young Pliny had described at the source of the Clitumnus (Stourhead being literally the head of the river Stour), and may be seen as a classical allegory in landscape of man's passage through the world.

The Grotto appears today virtually unchanged, both within and in the approach. The temperature still drops as one approaches, and an authentic eighteenth-century frisian can be felt. You have quite literally reached hell; a truly sublime experience. An inscription over the original entrance to the Grotto (now buried) came from the Aeneid, associating the Grotto with the cave of nymphs where Aeneas lands in North Africa on his flight from Troy. In the Grotto we find a statue of a River God (derived from an etching by Salvator Rosa, a master of the sublime, one of a series of studies called The Dream of Aeneas). The statue shows the river god Tiber exactly as Virgil describes him. In the Aeneid, Tiber points the way for Aeneas to find the Arcadian king, and he does, engaged in rites at an alter dedicated to the worship of Hercules. In the garden, Tiber points the way to the Pantheon. The Pantheon houses Michael Rysbrack's statue of Hercules, one of the deities associated with gardens in Roman times; and even earlier with Greek mystery cults and their sacred gardens. One then crosses a bridge and climbs up to the Temple of Apollo.

While today's visitor would be unlikely to understand the ichnography of Stourhead, the well educated visitors in the eighteenth century certainly would. They would have been familiar with Virgil's Aeneid, and perhaps even with Claude Lorrain's Coast View of Delos with Aeneas (a painting thought to have actually hung for a while at Stourhead), which shows the Pantheon, bridge, and Doric portico bearing a remarkable resemblance to the placement of the monuments in the garden. These re-creations of classical legends by (especially) Claude and Poussin appealed strongly to the English gentry of the eighteenth century who had experienced the Grand Tour, and actually began to see landscape through the eyes of these artists.

The reader may be wondering why we have spent so much time talking about a garden. The point is that the images evoked by the ichnography of Stourhead for us today are much different than they were for those living when Henry Hore laid out the garden. The images may still arouse us, but definitely not as they did in the eighteenth century. The reason goes to the heart of this paper. At the time, non-Europeans would have been unlikely to have understood the meaning of these images in the garden. Understanding these images is a function of time and culture. We do not understand them today as they were originally intended, even though we do identify with the landscape esthetics as a part of our own cultural heritage.


We would like to turn our attention now to the question of equity and images. One of the goals in using a particular image to represent a brand is to associate that image with positive brand equity. While there continues to be discussion and debate as to just what one means by the term "brand equity", and just how can we measure it, there is no doubt that there is a certain power in a brand name.

Lest you wonder if a dollar value can ever be placed upon a "brand" name, consider this example. I think one would acknowledge that a Rembrandt is going to cost you quite a bit, were you so lucky as to be able to afford one. But are you paying for the quality of the art work or for the name Rembrandt? Or, if some combination, what is the "added" value of the Rembrandt name? As it happens, for the last 25 years something called the Rembrandt Research Project has been attempting to authenticate the vast body of work or raisonne' that has been attributed to Rembrandt. As they are completing their work, the number of paintings it accepted as his is expected to be only about 350, roughly half the total when they began. Along the way, many beloved works are now found to be "school of", not actually by the artist. These include such works as the Man with the Golden Helmet in Berlin and The Polish Rider from the Frick Collection. And what does this mean in dollars? A true Rembrandt will fetch in excess of ten million dollars; the market for a rejected work, around one million. The equity in the Rembrandt brand name would seem to be around ten million dollars.

Very definitely there can be dollar value in a brand name. And, one of the ways to communicate that brand name and reflect its equity is through imagery. The trademark that North Sea Gas in Britain has adopted is the trident, that old symbol of Neptune, but cleverly combined with the usage of a gas burner. But does one recognize it as the symbol of Neptune? Perhaps we do, but would we expect people in South America, or Turkey, or China to understand the imagery? I would suggest that the English culture, rich in sea-going history and classical education, enables the English market to identify and respond to the imagery aroused by this trademark, but that the significance of it (i.e., natural gas from the North Sea) will remain largely unnoticed or misunderstood by most other people.

Gombrich (1982) presents us another example from England, one of a strongly culture-driven image contained in an advertisement for the London Daily Telegraph. As he points out, it is really an "image of an image". The hands of the central figure in the ad, which are holding up the newspaper, appear to be torn from the newspaper itself. To the English public in our time, the image is immediately recognized. But is it apparent to us? The bowler hat suggests the city gent, and the profiles of his fellows gazing raptly at the paper with obvious envy leaves no doubt they are all commuters on a train to the city.

It should be obvious that one would not need to venture far before this image becomes unintelligible. As Gombrich points out, the share of convention for the English is obvious, but they are not conventions in the making of the images (which is in fact quite unconventional), but of dress (bowler hat) and habits (reading the paper on the way to the city). Like most artists, as we have seen, the art director for this advertisement has drawn upon the signs and symbols current in his culture.

David Freedberg (1989) provides some context for this. He feels that one of the difficulties in dealing with the iconography inherent in art is that it is consistently infected by the measuring of the effects of representational works against the effect of their perceived equivalents in the real world. For Americans, the bowler hat has little significance beyond some vague symbolic representation of an Englishman. In a book about Roger de Piles, a 17th century art scholar, Puttfarken (1985) quotes him (correctly in Freedberg's opinion) as pointing out that the reason one can have difficulty in looking at representational painting is in "distinguishing between the way we perceive pictures (and the effect they have on us) and the way we perceive and are affected by the real world around us". What was true in the 17th century is still true.

Let's see if we can make this point a little more concretely. One of the most image-intensive product categories in today's world is beer. In some very interesting work conducted by my colleague John Rossiter and me, we pointed out the critical importance of what we called "self-image congruence" to beer brand choice. Beer drinkers look to advertising to tell them who drinks a brand, and, quite literally, what its taste characteristics are. We have a case here where brand equity and image are tightly bound. When a sample of beer drinkers knew what brands they were tasting in a taste test, the distribution of the brands in the drinker's cognitive space reflected the brand's positioning in the marketplace. On the one side there was Miller Lite and Coors ("lighter" beers), in the middle Pabst toward the top, and Budweiser further down (more traditional beers, one regular and one premium), with Colt 45 (malt liquor) and Guiness Stout way out to the other side. But, when drinkers were unaware of the brands they were drinking, they were unable to distinguish between them (with the exception of Guiness Stout; but it is much darker in color, and actually has a distinctive taste relative to the others tested). Without the brand name to arouse the appropriate image for the beer, beer drinkers have no idea of what it should taste like. This "taste image", of course, comes from the images presented in advertising for the brands.

If we look at the advertising for beer in different countries, we see very definite differences in the evoked imagery. Anyone who has seen English beer commercials will know how very different they are from our own. They tend to be off-beat, and quite often rely upon the symbolic significance of the pub. Our own beer advertising establishes clearly defined "types" for beer drinkers to identify with. Super-premium beers (like Michelob) show somewhat upscale drinkers; premium beers (like Budweiser, Miller, Coors) more average drinkers; regular beers (like Old Milwaukee, Pabst) will feature more blue collar workers or outdoorsmen. The images are culturally driven, and not likely to transfer easily to other markets. For example, the image of "success" in Japan is not the same as it is for us. In fact, a comparison of advertising for the same brand of beer in the U.S., Canada, and England will show a remarkable similarity between our ads and those from Canada, but little in common with those from England. Yet, we all have a generally common heritage.


Does this mean we can't expect to find images that can be used globally for our brands? Not at all, but we must be certain that such images do transcend cultural interpretations. If you have ever spent much time in a museum, you have no doubt been struck by the fact that certain paintings quite simply exercise a captivating power over you. As Freedberg (1989) suggests, we recognize the possibilities of intellectual pleasures when we visit a museum, in part because we understand that history and common judgement have rightly sanctioned its status as a seat of great art. We feel an aura, no matter that we may sense this could simply be a function of a painting being in a museum.

In one gallery of the Uffizi in Florence there are several huge canvases by Botticelli, among them the Birth of Venus and Primavera. Both are almost mesmerizing, but there is something about Primavera that simply "stops" you. Now these are quite comparable paintings (both from the Villa di Castello and the collection of a cousin of Lorenzo de'MediciBbut more of this later). Yet, if one observes visitors passing through the gallery, while everyone certainly looks at the Birth of Venus, they stop at Primavera. Why?

Joseph Campbell has described Birth of Venus, where Venus is taken by Wind into the arms of Spring, as easily representing the birth of beauty, resulting in a union of spirit and water; or of ideas and nature. For a scholar of Joseph Campbell's unique and wonderful insight into myth and man, these images in Birth of Venus have real meaning. But is this imagery aroused in the average viewer? I think not. We see only a beautiful painting; and if one understands Venus to mean anything, it is probably "the goddess of love".

I would like to suggest that something of a universal image, rooted deep within, is aroused by Primavera. Primavera has a very interesting history. It was acquired by Lorenzo di Refiancesco in 1478 for his Villa di Castello when he was but an adolescent of 15. In this same year Ficino (the leader of the Neo-Platonic revival in Florence) had sent the young man a moral exhortation couched in the form of an allegorical horoscope. It ended in an appeal for Lorenzo to fix his eyes upon Venus, who stood for Humanitas (or our humanity), submitting to the charm of this beautiful nymph. Ficino thought so much of this that he also asked Lorenzo's tutors to make him learn it by heart. As it happens, there is ample evidence to suggest that this virtue of Humanitas was precisely a virtue he conspicuously lacked.

Where are we headed with this story? Botticelli's painting was in fact meant to serve just such a purpose. Ficino believed, as did Cicero, that young men were more easily swayed by visual demonstration than by abstract instruction. As Gombrich (1972) puts it, Cicero in effect is saying, "Don't talk about virtue to the young, but present virtue as an attractive girl and they will fall for it." Could not the Venus of Primavera, he wonders, owe its beauty (and we would suggest its messmerizing quality as well) to this pedagogic theory? He strongly believes that this Neo-Platonic conception of painting, as with music, has art exerting a spell that leads to lasting psychological effects.

To the extent that those who commissioned the painting for the young man believed it would mollify his character, precisely as they believed the influence of the planet Venus affected the character of those born under it, they would have been concerned with her authentic appearance. Just as an amulet will only be effective if the image is correct, if the painting was to exert its beneficent spell, it too must be correct. Gombrich feels that Botticelli most likely consulted the Golden Ass, by Apuleius, as background for the painting. In that text Venus and her train are described within the context of the Judgement of Paris, and we are indeed reminded of this by the Three Graces dancing in the foreground of the painting. As a result (perhaps), this greater attention to detail creates more of an icon, and with it taps a deeper psychological response.

Freedberg (1989) has said that aura is that which liberates responses from the exigencies of convention. The aura of a painting in a museum may even approach something of the force of its original aura, notwithstanding the abating effects of reproduction and removal from original context. We would suggest that this aura reflects a set of psychological responses that reside within us, and are a permanent part of our humanness. Primavera taps this response, and for an image to freely cross cultural boundaries, it too must relate to those more permanent images.

Can we identify these images that have the ability to imbue our brands with the power to communicate globally? The answer is most certainly yes; but we must be ever alert. Turning again to Gombrich (1963), he reminds us that our speech makes use of conventional symbols which must be learned. However, our tone of voice and pacing serves as an outlet for something deeper; symptoms of emotions which can even be discerned by small children and animals. And, on the other side of the scale, those gestures and expressions which we believe to be "natural" are none-the-less still filtered through the conventions of our culture.

When we see the powerful images of primitive art we are often stuck by a feeling of horror and amazementBwe sense something missing from a conventional response to what we would regard as a masterpiece in Western art. Indeed, as Freedberg suggests, "primitive" is frequently used as synonymous with powerful, strong, effective. Our response to "primitive art" need not be constrained by our culturally dictated response. It is here that we experience a response to what I am calling permanent psychological images. So we do know that we are capable of non-conventional responses to images; responses free of cultural dependency. But we must search for such images carefully, testing them in each market.

There does seem to be an inborn disposition in all of us to equate certain sensations with certain "feeling tones" (O'Malley, 1957). In Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum's (1957) primary work on the psychological meaning of words, a definite pattern of image arousal was noted. For example, is black more sad than happy, is it more heavy than light; is it more powerful than weak; is it more old than young? However irrational these choice alternatives may sound it seems that our answers are more systematic than random.

As a guide to understanding what some of these more permanent psychological images might be, Gombrich (1963) has developed a very simple two-dimensional model based upon the Osgood et al. work. Imagining that our basic reactions to images (or any stimuli for that matter) are grounded in a biological urge for survival, one might say that we see things as either friendly or hostile. He has developed a model of what he refers to as a natural code of equivalences. Every color, sound, or shape has a natural feeling tone just as every feeling has an equivalence in the world of sight and sound.

While admittedly a crude "model," it none-the-less offers an interesting guide to the arousal potential of these more permanent psychological images. On the scale of sensory experiences, bodily feelings of temperature change should stimulate warmth from friendliness and friendliness experienced as warmth, hostility as cold and cold as hostile. Following the line of visual sensations, darkness is experienced as gloomy and hostile, light warm and friendly. Among colors, Gombrich argues that red, say, being brighter than blue, will easily be experienced as the equivalence of warmth and cheerfulness, blue of cold and sadness. Admittedly one must be somewhat careful with color since it can be subject to cultural conditioning, but the more abstract arousal responses do seem to reflect these underlying responses.

Can one find examples where a symbolic image has been successfully implemented on a global scale? There are examples; and one we know of that has been successful. In 1970 Unilever successfully introduced a new fabric softener into the German market. Using a positioning that was at the time a major departure for the category, it was introduced as offering softness plus economy. It succeeded and was introduced into France in 1972. While the label in both Germany and France used a picture of a "Teddy"-like bear on its label, the French decided to expand the role of the bear and use it as a more direct image of softness. In 1978 Italy went even further and made the bear the spokesman for the brand.

The universal appeal of the cuddly bear was tapping into a deep-seated psychological image, arousing positive feelings of warmth and communicating softness within the context of the brand. After market testing in 1983, the Snuggles bear introduced the brand in the U.S. with a much higher level of realism. This "new" bear has now returned to Europe as a spokesman for the brand, and has even entered the Far East. Here we truly have an example of a global image used to build equity for a brand internationally.

Nelson Goodman (1976) in his Languages of Art suggests that in aesthetic experience, the emotions function cognitively. In other words, that a work of art is apprehended through feelings as well as through the senses. Freedberg (1989) extends this aesthetic experience to all images, and so would we. Not so much in a ridged psychological definition, but along the path we have been traveling in this paper. Images arouse, and this arousal is understood cognitively. More often than not their cognitive understanding is mediated by environment or culture, and we must be alert to its influence. But there are transcendent understandings, those things we have called permanent psychological images. And, where we are able to tap them, we have an image that will serve us well globally.

I would like to close with one last observation of David Freedberg. "There still remains a basic level of reaction that cuts across historical, social, and contextual boundaries. It is at precisely this levelBwhich pertains to our psychological, biological, and neurological status as members of the same speciesBthat our cognition of images is allied with that of all men and women, and it is this still point which we seek."


Freedberg, David (1989) The Power of Images, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Gombrich, E.H. (1982) The Image and the Eye, Phaiden Press Limited, Oxford.

Gombrich, E.H. (1972) Symbolic Images, Phaiden Press Limited, Oxford.

Gombrich, E.H. (1963) Meditations on a Hobby Horse, Phaiden Press Limited, Oxford.

Goodman, N. (1976) Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols, 2nd ed. Indianapolis.

Kroeber-Riel, W. (1988) "Advertising in Saturated Markets," Working Paper, Saarbrucken, Germany: Institute for Consumer and Behavioral Research, University of the Saarland.

O'Malley (1957) "Literary Synesthesia", Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XV.

Osgood, C.E., G.J. Suci, and P.H. Tennenbaum (1957) The Measurement of Meaning, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

Puttfarken, T. (1985) Roger de Piles' Theory of Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.



Larry Percy, Consultant, Rochester Hills, Michigan, U.S.A.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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